The day after the 2008 Winter NAMM show ended, I participated in a direct-to-disc recording session at Infrasonic Sound in Los Angeles in preparation for writing the “Mastering Vinyl” feature (p. 54). I wanted to learn firsthand, from a mastering engineer's perspective, what the limitations of the media really are. I've made a few records over the years, but my knowledge about the format's peculiarities was mostly picked up from a quarter century of DIY productions. As you'll read, there's quite a bit more to making a record than a 1:1 transfer from a digital master.
Despite the medium's marginalization, vinyl has remained relevant to the remix and dance crowds since the advent of CDs in the mid-'80s. But a recent groundswell of interest in vinyl releases — across all genres — has taken the mainstream by surprise. Sources in the music industry report that nearly a million records were sold last year, and this doesn't even include the thousands sold at gigs and via mail order by musicians who are operating off the retail radar. That figure may seem insignificant to some, but considering the decline in CD sales over the past few years, vinyl records represent at least one area of growth in a stagnating industry.
From a consumer's point of view, the resurgence in vinyl's popularity stems not only from the format's sound quality, but also from its presentation as a complete work of art. Downloads, by comparison, are disappointing as a multidimensional entertainment experience. And LPs provide a generous canvas to work with, unlike CDs. As a boutique item, 7- and 12-inch records are collectible and stand out on a crowded merch table at gigs.
From an artist's standpoint, records demand more of the listener's active participation than a CD or download. To rip the music into an MP3 requires a complete journey through the groove at least once, in real time. And, you have to get up and flip the disc over to hear all of the songs. A record has attitude — it must be dealt with.
But vinyl's sudden moment in the spotlight is merely a signal that not everybody wants to have music on tap 24/7 at the expense of audio quality or artistic vision. The devaluation and perceived disposability of intangible music files that can be shared easily over the Internet is fueling a reevaluation by musicians, consumers, and distributors of how we create and experience music.
This theme was echoed during the NAMM launch of the Music Engineering Technology Alliance (METAlliance), a coalition of producers, engineers, and audio manufacturers who noted that the entertainment industry continues to move backward in terms of audio resolution, sacrificing sound for convenience. The organization's goal is to foster an awareness of quality in the recording arts, in part by certifying gear from its Pro Partners, manufacturers whose products meet the exacting standards of top engineers like those on the METAlliance board of directors — Chuck Ainlay, Ed Cherney, Frank Filipetti, George Massenburg, Phil Ramone, Elliot Scheiner, and Al Schmitt. Certification of the gear comes only when there is unanimity among the engineers involved.
Whether or not more than a handful of high-end audio products actually achieve certification from seven of the busiest people in the recording industry (or if it's even relevant to the overall debate about the resolution of consumer delivery formats) remains to be seen. However, many of the participants talked about creating outreach programs to educate the next generation of content creators and consumers about high-resolution audio. They have their work cut out for them, for as Nashville engineer Denny Purcell once noted, “We live in the age of ‘good enough.’”
Most of us would agree that talent and content trump sound quality. But we also need to raise the bar sonically so that our audience comes to expect something more than the audio equivalent of fast food.